Most obviously, it had the twin cam, 24-valve 3.5-litre engine first used in the M1, albeit with different pistons, rods and management. Today, 282bhp might not seem like much, but when this car came out, it was more than you’d find under the engine cover of the Ferrari 328 GTB.
But there was far more to the original M5 than that: it had a close-ratio Getrag gearbox and bespoke suspension geometry, shock absorbers, rollbars and spring rates. There were bigger brakes, those beautiful 16in wheels (for the UK market) and chunkier tyres, too.
Inside, it was even harder to tell the difference: there’s an M-Technic wheel, an M-badge where the fuel economy gauge should be in the
rev counter and more on the
heavily bolstered sports seats.
Look really closely and you’ll
notice the speedometer reads up
to 170mph instead of the usual 160mph, but it lacks even the red needles or oil temperature gauge
of its contemporary, the E30 M3.
At the time, the M5 seemed pretty understated, but in today’s world where a car’s kudos in the sports
car market appears defined by the amount of aerodynamic addenda it wears, it seems very nearly invisible.
You sit high in the M5 and notice first how narrow it is, then how phenomenally airy it feels and, lastly, how easy it is to see out of.
The body’s squared off sides make
it exceptionally easy to negotiate down lanes, increasing both its point-to-point speed and your confidence and enjoyment of the car. The engine is pure automotive aristocracy. Its voice is clean, sharp, rich and smooth, pregnant with promise yet quiet enough not to intrude. Most E28 M5s have done big mileages, because their first owners gleefully used them as all-purpose daily drivers, dispatching everything this side of an uncommonly powerful Ferrari with barely a puff of smoke from its twin central tailpipes. The gearshift is quite slow but very precise and the ratios are beautifully chosen; sufficiently closely stacked to make the most of the engine’s limited torque, but long enough in fifth so as not to get breathless.
The car’s dimensions make it
very easy to drive fast, while the power makes it a very quick one,
not just by the standards of 30 years ago, but also those of today. A large executive saloon it may have been in its day, but it’s lighter than a brand new Volkswagen Golf R and only a fraction less powerful. And once its engine gets above 4200rpm, it simply sings around to its 7000rpm redline. You could have more fun in this boxy old saloon just travelling in a straight line than most modern sporting cars down your favourite country road.
It handles far better than you’d expect, too. The E28 5 Series was quite loose at the rear, especially in the wet, but for all BMW added to the M5 in terms of extra power, it added more in terms of chassis stability. Those suspension modifications allied to a standard limited-slip differential means that while the M5 still rides softly compared with modern cars, it has no shortage of composure. Its steering has perfect gearing, impressive accuracy and feel of a kind that you just don’t find in this kind of car anymore. I wasn’t about to wrench it loose through a quick corner on a wet road in front of its owner, but I drove it as fast as it felt it wanted to be driven and loved how naturally it f lowed from mild understeer to gorgeous neutrality as I applied power from the apex.